Trains and Nature in Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams

Are deeply interested in man’s interaction with nature in their poetry. Indeed, both poets were writing in America at the beginning and in the thick of the Industrial Revolution, and both men had to contend with America’s changing perspective on nature’s role in life. In his “To a Locomotive in Winter,” Whitman creates an energetic and stark image of the train, at odds with nature while also providing an immaculate perspective on modern technology and change and the powerful effects that it can provide.

Williams, on the other hand, looks at technological advancement as a natural part of a different landscape, this one being the modern world. In his “10/27” from The Descent of Winter, Williams paints a picture of the modern world, complete with overhead train lights, stoplights, and all aspects of modern industrial advancement.

While both poets are interested in depicting the world as it is, Whitman struggles with the implications of technological advancement and its threats to nature, while Williams sees technology as a part of nature.

Walt Whitman is famous for his nature writing – indeed, Leaves of Grass, one of the most famous American collections of poetry in history, focuses on living in nature, and he’s writing in a time that must grapple with technological changes and how that shifts the American way of life. His poem “To a Locomotive in Winter” captures this view intricately. The train itself is represented in myriad ways, including as a “Fierce-throated beauty!” (line 18) and “Thee in thy panoply, thy measured dual throbbing, and thy beat convulsive;

Thy black cylindric body, golden brass, and silvery steel;  Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling at thy sides; / Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar—now tapering in the distance” (lines 2-5).

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Obviously, here the train is something that commands respect and possesses great power – through words like “fierce” and the “golden brass,” “silvery steel” and “ponderous side-bars” that actually create the train itself, Whitman is giving a certain amount of power and respect to the man-made train even though it is at odds with nature. Even though Whitman recognizes the significance of the achievement reached by the creation of the train, that does not mean that it does not have ill effects on modern America: it creates “trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,  / Launch’d o’er the prairies wide” (lines 23-4) and “dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack” (line 9).

While Whitman does give the train its due credit and reverence, he also recognizes the danger that it poses to his previous way of life.One of the most common features of Whitman’s poetry and a significant way it affects his message is his method of cataloguing, which also shows up in this discussion of the locomotive. He begins the poem by speaking directly to the train, calling it “thy” and “thee,” and, thereby, allowing a certain amount of respect to be given to the train and, in many ways, humanizing it. The introductory list that catalogues the train’s makeup, power and problems allows the speaker to create a slightly confusing tone: indeed, because this list is mildly ironic in its lauding of the train through describing the destructiveness of the smokestacks and using other words with largely negative connotations (“Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate purple” (line8), for example), the power and majesty that is superficially discussed is somewhat undermined.

The list in this poem serves the purpose both of allowing the multiple aspects and details of the train to be known and also to convey the complexity that the speaker views this new technology. Indeed, with descriptions likening the train to natural disasters, such as, “Thy piercing, madly-whistled laughter! thy echoes, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all!” (line 20), one cannot read “To a Locomotive in Winter” without recognizing the complicated relationships between nature and the train, and Whitman represents this through recognizing the significance of technological advance, but also stating the problems that this can pose to established ways of living.William Carlos Williams’ “10/27” works to create a holistic image of the technological world.

The description that he provides of the cityscape is nothing if not surreal, as he lists objects that don’t necessarily register with the reader, and demonstrates that the person seeing them from the car window is surrounded by lights from different directions. Indeed, when the poet looks out of his car window, he sees “the white porcelain trough is no doubt made of some certain blanched clay baked and glazed but how they do it, how they shape it soft and have it hold its shape for the oven I don’t know nor how the cloth is woven, the grey and the black with the orange and green strips wound together diagonally across the grain artificial pneumothorax their faces!”, demonstrating the complexities of the modern world.

Even though the speaker of this poem cannot explain what the objects that he sees are, the idea that this is the world is never challenged or questioned in the poem. Thus, while the modern world is confusing and different, it is still the world and Williams looks to explore that world through his poetry. The images of the world seen through the car window is both making a statement about technological advancement, but is also showing how perspective in this modern world functions. For example, “Any hat in this window $2.00 barred windows, wavy opaque glass, a block of brownstone at the edge of the sidewalk crudely stippled on top for a footstep to a carriage, lights with sharp bright spikes, stick out round them their faces,” showing that the windows are barred, the glass opaque, and perspective generally altered even though lights are being provided on this city from multiple different angles.

The city lights themselves are at the center of Williams’ “10/27.” Indeed, the way that the lights are perceived by the speaker are important to how the rest of the objects, and the city in general, is represented in the poem. Williams states, “STOP in black letters surrounded by a red glow, letters with each bulb a seed in the shaft of the L of the A lights on the river streaking the restless water lights upon pools of rainwater by the roadside a great pool of light full of overhanging sparks into whose lower edge a house looms its center marked by one yellow windowbright their faces,” showing a multitude of lights, some coming from overhead trains, some from stoplights, and all coming from miscellaneous spots in the city. Indeed, the manufactured, “unnatural” lights of this poem are what allow the speaker to provide a description of this surreal and odd city, thereby demonstrating that through technological development and the new city life, a different kind of perspective and illumination can be present.

Because Williams allows the city to exist in its own space and sphere, the lights that he provides and the description of the city, and thereby locomotives, cars, and other technological advancements, shows a new kind of life.Both Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams explore accurate representations of the world in their “To a Locomotive in Winter” and “10/27” from The Descent of Winter, respectively. While both seek to demonstrate some aspect of life, they both also do it in very different ways. These poets are writing at different moments in the Industrial Revolution, and that is reflected in the ways in which they represent trains and modern society.

Whitman shows that while the train and technological advancement certainly have a place in modern American society and essentially are its future, there still is a destructive element to nature as it has been known and that one cannot accept these advancements without a wary eye. Williams, on the other hand, sees this modern technology and the lights provided by overhead trains as something eerie and surreal, even though he uses these images to show the state of the modern world as it is and does not provide a harsh critique of that world. Indeed, both poets recognize problems with the changing of nature, though Whitman struggles with it more than Williams does as represented in these two poems.

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Trains and Nature in Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams. (2019, Jun 20). Retrieved from

Trains and Nature in Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams
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